‘No regret dumping Nigeria for Bahrain’
• Story of young Nigerian athletes who changed allegiance to Arab nations
In July 2013, Edidiong Offinime Odiong was in Team Nigeria’s squad to the IAAF World Youth Championship, which took place in the city of Donetsk, Ukraine.
Odiong, a product of Cross River School Athletics programme, was able to distinguish herself in Donetsk, when others fumbled.
After Nigeria’s brightest medals’ hope, Divine Oduduru failed in the 200m final, Odiong became the country’s only medals’ hope in the girls 400m. She easily made it to the final with a personal best time of 54.15 seconds.
Though Odiong could not win a medal, but former Nigeria queen of the track, Endurance Ojokolo, who was part of the team to Donetsk, was proud of her performance.
At the end of the championship in Donetsk, Odiong told The Guardian (the only Nigerian newspaper to cover the championship) that her ambition was to become a world-class athlete one day. A few months later, Odiong, fondly called Cross River’s golden girl by her fans, fought her way into Nigeria’s squad, this time, for the African Youth Athletics Championship in Mauritius. Unlike the no medal show in Donetsk, Odiong wrote her name in gold, as she combined with the trio of Cecilia Francis, Deborah Adewale and Abimbola Junaid to win the medley relay for girls in a time of 2:09.36. The performance helped Nigeria top the medal’s table ahead of Egypt, Ethiopia and Kenya.
That was in 2013 and since then, Odiong became a regular feature for Team Nigeria in major athletics championships.
She represented Nigeria at the 2014 IAAF World junior championships in Oregon, where she finished sixth in the 400m final. She later anchored the country’s 4x400m team, which comprised Praise Idamadudu, Jennifer Edobi and Yinka Ajayi to the fifth position.
But at the recently concluded IAAF World U-20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, last month, Odiong appeared in the colours of a different country. Unknown to many athletics followers back home in Nigeria, the young athlete has changed nationality to Bahrain, a country off the eastern coastline of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.
The decision by Odiong to change allegiance to Bahrain came just when Nigerian athletics enthusiasts have gotten over the loss of world class 400m hurdler, Kemi Adekoya, to the rich Arab nation. Adekoya won Bahrain’s first ever World Indoor championships gold medal, when she won the women’s 400m title in Portland, Oregon, USA, a few months ago.
Bahrain had also snatched other Nigerian promising junior athletes, including Ebere Agbapuluonwu, Nwamaka Onyeocha, Abbas Abubakar and Precious Moses before Odiong joined the trail last month.
Like Odiong and others now wearing Bahrain’s colours, Ebere, a 400m champion at the 2013 School Sports festival in Port Harcourt, was already making waves in Nigeria’s athletics circuit before the Arab country dangled the big carrot. She hails from Anambra State.
On his part, Precious Moses was the best young quarter-miler discovered in Nigeria in 2015. He won the 400m in Enugu in 48 seconds. He had been called up to the senior team a couple of times before his decision to dump Nigeria for Bahrain.
The Guardian learnt that a Nigerian-born coach, John Obeya, is capitalising on the ‘poor’ state of the nation’s sports to ferry the country’s young and promising athletes to the oil-rich Bahrain. The two athletes (Ebere and Adekoya) were said to be products of a sports academy in Nimo, Anambra State.
According to www.makingofchamps.com, the growing trend of Nigeria’s best athletes switching allegiance to other countries, particularly the Kingdom of Bahrain, calls for urgent investigation.
At the IAAF World U-20 Championships, which ended in Bydogoszcz, Poland, two weeks ago, all eyes were on Odiong and other Nigerian athletes who transferred allegiance to Bahrain.
Unlike Precious Moses, who got his Bahraini citizenship in one year, Odiong was ratified by the IAAF on June 11, just over a month before the World U-20 Championships.
On July 23 in Bydogoszcz, Odiong won a stunning gold medal in the women’s 200m for Bahrain with a time of 22.84 seconds.
Perhaps, apart from Blessing Okagbare, the performance by Odiong for Bahrain in Poland is the fastest by any Nigerian woman, senior or junior, since 2012.
Odiong’s victory for her newly adopted country, Bahrain, came at a time, when all Nigerian athletes to the IAAF World U-20 championship flopped in Bydogoszcz.
Till this moment, top officials of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) are yet to come to terms with the coaches, who led Team Nigeria to the ‘disappointing’ outing in Bydogoszcz, Poland.
To some athletics followers in the country, letting a junior athlete with great potential like Odiong to slip through her fingers, only for Bahrain to turn her into a World U-20 Champion within two years, is indeed a mistake the country will regret for a long time.
“If God says this is not where your success is, it can never be there,” Odiong told www.makingofchamps.com about the departure of Nigerian Athletes like herself to other countries.
With the IAAF World U-20 Championship in Bydogoszcz, Poland over, Odiong’s next major assignment for Bahrain is the Rio Olympics Games.
Speaking with The Guardian yesterday, Nigeria former hurdler, coach Seigha Porbeni, who led Team Nigeria to the championship in Poland, said that the ‘bad structure’ of Nigeria’s sports made it possible for the likes of Odiong and other up-coming athletes to dump the country for Arab nations.
Between 2013 and 2015, Odiong trained under coach Porbeni, from the World youth championship in Donetsk to the 2015 African Youth Championship in Addis Ababa. “I felt so bad seeing my own athlete (Odiong) in the colour of another country competing against my team in Poland. But I was happy for her because our system in Nigeria is not encouraging the athletes and even the coaches. The two coaches in charge of athletics for Bahrain are Nigerians. They are John Obeya from Plateau State and one Akeem and they have a programme that is well supported by the government of Bahrain. As we speak, Odiong has been training Poland for the Rio Olympic Games in Brazil. It means that ‘our little’ Odiong of yesterday will now line side by side with Blessing Okagbare in the 200m event in Rio. The 22.84 sec she ran in Poland put Odiong is a better position ahead of many athletes in Rio. That is what the change of allegiance from Nigeria to Bahrain has done for Odiong. Nigeria needs to learn some lesion from this,” Porbeni stated.
Another Nigerian athlete, who competed in 400m in the colours of Bahrain during the IAAF World U-20 championship in Poland, is Iman Isa Jassim. She dumped Nigeria for Bahrain a couple of years ago.
Iman, previously known as Endurance Essien Udoh, was also a product of the Cross River State Athletics programme in Nigeria
Another Nigerian athlete competing for Bahrain is Basira. She said that her Nigerian name is Lolade Shodiya and she used to run for Lagos State in Secondary School meets and other junior competitions. Just when she was under the radar of national team selectors in Nigeria, Basira left the African shores for the Middle East.
At the moment, the duo of Iman and Basira are already Arab junior champions in the 400m and 100m respectively. The impact of Nigerian-born athletes on Bahraini athletics already extends well beyond the junior level. Kemi Adekoya, who announced her arrival as a Bahraini athlete with a stunning victory at the Doha Diamond League in 2014, holds the Bahraini records in both the 400m flat and the 400m hurdles, and is the current 400m World Indoor Champion.
Abbas Abubakar Abbas also won silver at the 2014 Asian Games, and also represented Bahrain at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing.
Another Nigerian athlete, Femi Ogunode has since changed allegiance to Qatar.